There’s nothing that simultaneously frightens and nauseates a parent all at once quite like the following:
It’s just past midnight, and you, having fitfully fought your way into a decent sleep, suddenly become aware of a long, low moan coming from your child’s bedroom. Surrounded by darkness, you sit up; your slow-waking brain struggles to place the sound amid the other nocturnal noises. Then, you hear it again: a low moan, this time followed by a pitiful cry of “Mommy…” You pause, wondering if it’s just a nightmare, wondering if your daughter will just roll over and go back to sleep.
But you hear that moan once more, along with another cry for mommy…followed by a wet gag and a splash.
You burst from the bed, race down the hallway (invariably stubbing your toe on a wayward toy), and open the door to your child’s room to discover a technicolor horror show all over the sheets and floor. The poor child, half sitting, half laying down, has her head stretched out over the floor, a dangling string of gastric explosion attached to her lips. You rush to the bed, ignoring the stomach-churning squish beneath your feet, and usher your little one into the bathroom where a soul-sucking dry heave wracks her body like an electric shock.
Your heart races: what is this? Is it a 24-hour bug? Did she somehow sustain a concussion during the night? Did she possibly get up and eat some of those leftovers that have a three-week growth of green fuzz? You’re analyzing a thousand scenarios, each one more dire than the previous, while your little princess is calling Ralph in front of you.
You feel your own stomach begin to sour and bubble, the faint acrid scent of bile slowly winding its way into your nostrils. You think back to college, when you had to do this for your roommate, or worse, your roommate’s date, and you wonder how you maintained your composure.
You look down at your daughter, now smiling wanly, her face white and sweaty. She wipes her chin and says, “I feel better now.”
Relieved, you help her back to her room while your spouse changes her bedsheets. After making sure that everything is cleaned, re-cleaned, and then tri-cleaned with an extra crop dusting of Lysol spray, you tuck your little one back into bed and rationalize that it was just a one-time thing brought on by a bad combination of greasy food and jumpy castles. You lay your head back down on your pillow, exhausted yet wired at the same time, and after a few minutes of restlessness you drift off to sleep once again.
And again you’re awakened by your poor little girl’s phlegmatic hacking as it echoes down the hallway and drills its way into the center of your brain. You are up at once (again) and will remain so for the rest of the night, until the sun breaks the sky in the east and you and your daughter both pass out on the couch during Curious George.
Yes, if you’re a parent of a four or five year-old, you’ve experienced this routine at least once. It is truly one of the worst feelings in the world, that midnight distress cry from your child, the one that can signal either a bad dream, a nasty virus, or your daughter’s sudden need to look you in the face and say, “Hi!” It encompasses all that we fear and dread about parenthood – the sudden reminder that for all of our efforts, we are still not in control; that the tiny person we worry over and pray over and struggle with and love and yet still need our space from is an independent being, separate from us and therefore not subject to our complete protection.
For any parent who has a child that is chronically ill, these midnight anxiety-fests are doubly difficult: not only might your child be sick, but they might be really sick and in need of a medical response that may not get to them in time. In those moments, you feel such a bizarre completeness of the human condition: frailty and strength, anger and compassion, cowardice and determination. You get all of these sensations all at once, like the most intense somatic experience ever devised for human beings, and it’s a wonder that you can even make a conscious choice, let alone not spontaneously combust.
Yet, for all of that, you not only survive, you make good decisions, life and death decisions, all in the split-second it takes to see your child unwell and looking to you for help. You find, in these powerless moments, that you are stronger than you ever imagined and capable of helping this child grow into an amazing adult.
The most horrible sound in the world is also the clarion call to some of our best moments as parents. It’s no coincidence that light shines brightest in dark – it’s only then that we can truly understand the power of the light.
And when our little one wakes up a few hours later, rested, stomach no longer spasmodic, and she turns her green eyes to you and says, in a whisper like butterfly wings, “Thank you, mommy. I love you” you feel the rush of a thousand lightning bolts go through your heart, and you remember:
This is what I was born to do.